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Systematic theology looks at the whole Bible and tries to understand all that God says on a given subject (e.g., sin, heaven, angels, justification).

Exegesis is what you do when you look at a single text of Scripture and try to understand what the author–speaking in a specific culture, addressing to a specific audience, writing for a specific purpose–intended to communicate.

Good systematic theology will be anchored in good exegesis. The sum of the whole is only as true as the individual parts. No Christian should be interested in constructing a big theological system that grows out of a shallow and misinformed understanding of the smaller individual passages. I don’t know of any evangelical pastor or scholar who disagrees with these sentiments.

But what about the reverse? We all know exegesis should inform systematic theology, but should our theological systems also inform our exegesis? Some Christians, especially biblical scholars, have argued that the best exegesis is completely theologically unprejudiced. We can’t bring our theological concerns to the Bible, lest we gerrymander the Scriptures and impose anachronistic categories on the text. The unspoken (or spoken) assumption is that the traffic between exegesis and theology is one way. Biblical scholars do their work, and as long as theologians pay attention to professional exegesis they can go on and do their own work. But the task of exegesis, it is often implied and sometimes explicitly said, has little to gain from listening to the theologians.

This insistence on making the path between exegesis and theology a one way street is untenable and unwise. Pastors, scholars, and lay interpreters would do well to heed the counsel of Moises Silva:

In contrast [to this one way street], I want to argue not only that the exegete may address theological issues and suggest what bearing the text may have on theological reflection–I go a daring step further: my systematic theology should actually inform my exegesis. To put it in the most shocking way possible, my theological system should tell me how to exegete. (Interpreting Galatians, 207)

Silva goes on to mention three considerations in defense of this “outrageous position.”

1. “In the first place, we should remind ourselves that systematic theology is, to a large extent, the attempt to reformulate the teaching of Scripture in ways that are meaningful and understandable to us in our present context” (208). There are many learned commentaries that fail the preacher, let alone the parishoner, because they refuse to ask any of the questions real people are asking. They dive into history, philology, and redaction criticism, but won’t talk about what this or that passage means for our view of marriage or our understanding of the devil or our belief in providence. The categories of systematic theology are not static. Some loci wax and wane with the times. But in general, systematic theology deals with the questions Christians have been most interested in discussing over the years or centuries. To set aside theology in the task of exegesis is an invitation to make exegesis irrelevant.

2. “In the second place, our evangelical view of the unity of Scripture demands that we see the whole Bible as the context of any one part” (208). The current debate about Adam, to cite just one example, demonstrates how critical the unity of Scripture is in shaping our exegetical method. If we believe–in the midst of genuine biblical diversity–there is behind each unique human author one Divine author, then we will be concerned to see how the different voices in Scripture make one harmonious sound. So if Romans teaches the doctrine of original sin rooted in a historical Adam we will not be embarrassed to bring this consideration to bear on our understanding of Genesis, not in a way that ignores everything else going in ancient Mesopotamia but in a way that informs our understanding of God’s inspired, unified Word. Of course, eisegesis is a danger which is why some scholars want to set aside “the analogy of faith” in the exegetical process. But to do so, Silva reminds us, “is to neglect the most important hermeneutical resource we have, namely, the unity and wholeness of God’s own revelation” (209).

3. “Third, and finally, my proposal will sound a lot less shocking once we remember that, as a matter of fact, everyone does it anyway” (209). If postmodernism has taught us anything it is that none of us comes to a text with a completely unbiased, blank slate. We come to the exegetical task for a framework, with a way of looking at the world, with a system. This is how the mind works and one of God’s gifts which make learning possible. It also makes the preacher’s herculean task more feasible. Without a systematic theology how can you begin to know what to do with the eschatology of Ezekiel or the sacramental language in John 6 or the psalmist’s insistence that he is righteous and blameless? As a Christian I hope that my theology is open to correction, but as a minister I have to start somewhere. We all do. For me that means starting with Reformed theology and my confessional tradition and sticking with that unless I have really good reason not to.

So rather than pretend to be theologically unprejudiced, why not acknowledge our own preconceptions and use them in the exegetical process? If we are honest about our theological systems we will be better equipped to reformulate our grid when it doesn’t work and better equipped to deal openly with the hard spots in the text. Without a system we will approach a passage like James 2:24 and get it wrong; or just as likely, we will ignore the difficult questions exploding in everyone’s brains. Theology does not have to distort exegesis. Done well, it can help provide guardrails for the interpretive process, honor the unity of Scripture, and throw a spotlight on the most important and most difficult issues arising from the Word of God.


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20 thoughts on “Your Theological System Should Tell You How to Exegete”

  1. MIke says:

    I like your summary statement, “So rather than pretend to be theologically unprejudiced, why not acknowledge our own preconceptions and use them in the exegetical process?” I agree, we cannot be theologically neutral when we approach the text, no matter how hard we try we always bring our own set of presuppositions to our exegesis. I would argue for a balance, recognize our own theological system, allow it to inform us, but don’t allow it to force the passage into the mold. I think this is what you are advocating.

  2. GLW Johnson says:

    The late S. Lewis Johnson, Jr. addressed this very topic in an article entitled “Romans 5:12-An Exercise in Exegesis and Theology” which appeared in ‘New Dimensions In New Testament Study’ edited by Richard N. Longenecker and Merrill C. Tenny(Zondervan 1974) D.A.Carson called Dr. Johnson’s piece “absolutely masterful”.

  3. Dan says:

    I think (and I could be wrong) that what Kevin is really arguing for is a more honest admission that our exegesis IS influenced by our systematic theology, and maybe a call for Christians to gain a more consistant, Biblical and well-supported Systematic theology? I started reading this interested in what DeYoung had to say, but thought “it does…automatically. Let’s see where he goes…” Even without the term “systematic theology”, we all have grouped our experiences and world views and thoughts about God into catagories, and use them when we read Scripture. What it seems like there’s less of is “maybe we should allow our exegesis to inform our systematic theology.”

  4. Jon says:

    “So rather than pretend to be theologically unprejudiced, why not acknowledge our own preconceptions and use them in the exegetical process?”

    But isn’t this precisely the problem?…when we use our preconceptions to mold our understanding of the Bible…

    How about we admit our preconceptions, and test them against scripture? Just being honest about our preconceptions goes a long way…but to take the next step, we need to be willing to overthrow those preconceptions based on solid exegesis.

    Using our preconceptions to shape our exegesis, hardly seems like a good hermeneutic. Doing this only makes the basis of our belief circular.

    But as always, I am all ears.

  5. Tom says:

    Don’t we already admit the preconceptions by identifying ourselves as Calvinist, Arminian, or now possibly Molinist?

    If I am Catholic, I am identifying with preconceived notions of what justification means?

    What about if I am Trinitarian? It seems a Trinitarian may be translating some Hebrew passages a certain way.

  6. Bill N. says:

    I have sat under preaching where systematic theology did blatantly control the exegesis and the results were disastrous; applications made that had no bearing on the context and intent of the passage; self-serving mis-exegesis to use the passage as a launching pad for whatever theological trolley car the pastor happened to be on at the time… After escaping that, I found Walter Kaiser’s approach of using biblical theology to make the transition from exegesis to application very helpful. That approach allows us to understand the passage in the broader context of redemptive history, (the unity of Scripture) without falling into the quagmire of miss-application. What systematic theology does is provide a fence around exegesis that raises a flag when we find our exegesis taking us to an understanding at odds with that systematic theology. At that point we need to re-examine our exegesis and revisit that particular point of our systematic theology within the scope of the whole of scripture. But I dare not use my systematic theology to make the text say something it does not say. It is in that sense of a fence that, yes, we can and indeed must bring our systematic theology to the text, but do it in a way that lets the text be the text. As a result I may need to refine my systematic theology or find a better way of understanding that theology. Or I need the input of a D.A. Carson or a James Grier to show me a different nuance of text or understanding of a point of theology that helps me come to a more harmonious understanding of both.

  7. Steve says:

    The problem is, all belief is circular. Not just all Christian belief, but all belief. You can’t escape circular logic. Every fact claim presupposes a faith claim. That’s not postmodern that just Augustinian. I believe so that I may understand. Exegetes who claim to be during “pure” exegesis apart from theology or preconceptions are just that much more enslaved to their own peculiar ones.

    Amen to DeYoung.

  8. Matt Burris says:

    I had a couple of thoughts in response to this:

    1. It seemed much of what Kevin and deSilva were talking about was more an exercise in Biblical Theology than Systematics.

    2. Good, thorough interpretation should always move beyond the bare historical-grammatical exegesis to the theological synthesis. That is, in what ways does this text inform and shape our theology? (Doug Stuart stresses this point in his classic work on OT exegesis.)

    3. I think most contemporary exegetes – at least in evangelical circles – are already doing this. Some of the best theological reflection today is coming from Biblical scholars like Don Carson and Greg Beale.

    So, to some extent, I’m not entirely sure what issue this article is trying to address. If all we had for commentaries were, say, some of the dryer and less theological entries in the Old Testament Library, I could understand. Such is not the case today.

    So…is there some pressing epidemic of people are stuck pondering potsherds and the aspect of Greek participles, and failing to go on to the “so what” of theology and application? I’m sure it is happening somewhere, but I am not seeing it. If anything, people are not careful enough in their exegesis.

  9. Johan Verster says:

    Find it surprising that there’s no mention of Biblical Theology in this whole discussion. It’s as important to our exegital work as ST is.

  10. Andrew says:

    Wow, blessed is the blog that has commenters this insightful. Steve especially.

    I think I remember hearing D.A. Carson use the term “hermrneutical spiral” to describe how this is supposed to work. You come to the text, inevitably, with an interpretive framework that influences your understanding of the text. The text, though, adjusts your framework, and so over time you spiral upward toward a more accurate understanding of Scripture.

    Worth a lifetime of study, idn’t it?

  11. Wendy Brant says:

    As a theological lay person, Cornelius Van Till and others helped me come to grips with some aspects of presuppositionalism – that the believer still approaches the understanding of particularly the difficult parts of Scripture with a fallen mind, blessedly enlightened by God the Holy Spirit at various times and in different measure according to His purposes. Each believer must be Berean searching the scriptures daily, discerning truth from errant exegesis.

    Wendy Brant

  12. Wendy Brant says:

    As a theological lay person, Cornelius Van Til and others helped me come to grips with some aspects of presuppositionalism – that the believer still approaches the understanding of particularly the difficult parts of Scripture with a fallen mind, blessedly enlightened by God the Holy Spirit at various times and in different measure according to His purposes. Each believer must be Berean searching the scriptures daily, discerning truth from errant exegesis.

    Wendy Brant

  13. John R. Neal says:

    Great article on the importance of bridging the gap between exegesis and theology. I just finished up a seminar on these current issues and appreciate the author’s honesty. We all come to the text with our own traditions and biases, but so do those who reject the notion of Divine inspiration.

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (PCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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